How Did the Ancient Romans Celebrate New Year’s?

7 mins read
How Did the Ancient Romans Celebrate New Year's?

How Did the Ancient Romans Celebrate New Year’s?

How did the Ancient Romans celebrate New Year’s, which we now associate with gifts, entertainment, and New Year’s resolutions?

In ancient Rome, the new year first began on the vernal equinox, according to the 10-month, 304-day calendar created by Romulus. Since this calendar caused many problems over the years, Julius Caesar decided to solve the problem by consulting the most prominent astronomers and mathematicians of his time, thus creating the Julien calendar, which is similar to the Gregorian calendar used today.

Thanks to the calendar reform, from 46 BC, January 1 was designated as the first day of the new year, and the consuls (top officials) who had previously taken office on a different date, began to take office on that day. In addition, the Saturnalia Festival, which was held to honor the god of Saturn, was usually celebrated between December 17-23, which pushed the Romans to extend this period a little longer and celebrate the new year with a second feast.

The name of the month January (Ianuarius) was inspired by the ancient Roman god Janus. Janus, meaning “gate” or “gate,” had two heads, one facing the past year and the other facing the next year. Janus, the god of all beginnings and endings, was the most important god of that era.

“The way you enter the new year, the whole year goes like that!”

The Romans believed that if they spent happily on the first day of the new year, so would the whole year. That’s why people gave each other gifts, spent the day as pleasant as possible, tried to avoid gossip and quarrels, shook hands and wished each other happiness.

Sweets (usually honey, dates and figs) were given as gifts, so it was believed that the year would always be sweet and beautiful. Along with very modest and symbolic gifts such as twigs or laurel leaves, valuables and money were also given as gifts (which was a great gift, as the silver coins had the symbol of Janus on them). Romans adorned their homes with green branches and lights, and sprinkled saffron on the hearth to incense the interior. Great banquets were held to which relatives and friends were invited, and after these invitations, people played games with dice, and jugglers and clowns went from house to house trying to extort money from people.

The New Year was also associated with prophecies and superstitions. If the new year’s day falls on the Nundinae (“the day of the market”), the next year will be unhappy; If it falls on a Sunday, war will break out or a high-ranking official will die; If it falls on a Monday, children will die and prices will rise; It was believed that fires would break out even if it coincided with Tuesday. Some people were reading excerpts from Homer’s or Virgil’s books, or choosing the first poem they saw and trying to tell fortunes from it.

In addition, members of the senate and local people gathered in the houses of the two newly appointed consuls, and a parade was started in front of their houses. Even the consuls were throwing coins at the participants during the march. Both portals came together to sacrifice Janus on the Capitol hill. After this ceremony, the consuls held a big banquet for their friends at home. The streets are singing and dancing; The taverns were full of Romans getting drunk and having fun.

How Did the Ancient Romans Celebrate New Year's?
A fresco unearthed in a tavern in Pompeii shows customers playing games.

So how do we know about Roman Christmas traditions? The Roman poet Ovidius’ book Fasti, which means ‘record of public holidays’, is one of the sources that have survived to the present day. Sound boring? Don’t worry, Ovidus knew how to get the reader excited.

In the first volume of the book, Ovidus calls out, “The fountain of the year that slips silently, Janus with two heads, the only god who can see behind…” At that moment, Janus suddenly appears before him! Ovid is horrified. Although he is frozen with fear at first, he finally manages to ask a few questions:

‘Tell me, why does the new year start with a cold, wouldn’t it be better if it started in the spring? Then everything blooms, life comes alive, new buds sprout on the vines, the trees are covered with new leaves, and huge grasses have sprung from the ground. Birds would add color to the beautiful air with their chirping, animals would run and play in the fields. For the sun is sweet, bringing with it foreign swallows that will build their clay nest under the highest rafter. It was also planted and plowed into the ground. It was spring’s right to be called New Year’s.’ I said this at length, questioning it. He succinctly replied in two lines: ‘The first of the new sun in midwinter is the last of the old: Phoebus* and the year begins at the same time.’

Also, Ovid asks why people wish each other happy birthday and give gifts. In response, Janus says, “For Omens.” “so that the events that will happen will also be good.”

Scullard H. H. (1981). Festivals and Ceremonies of the Roman.

Ovid. Fasti: The Book of Days or On the Roman Calendar. Çeviri: James G. Frazer

Graf F. (2016). Festivals in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Imperium Romanum. New Year in ancient Rome.

Brunner B. (2021). A History of the New Year.

Writes S. (2020). The Fascinating History of New Year’s Celebrations.

Blakemore E. (2021). The new year once started in March—here’s why.

Morton A. (2019). Happy New Year? Um…

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